Gough Whitlam dies aged 98; former PM remembered as 'giant' of Australian politics
Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam has been remembered as a visionary and a giant of federal politics by figures across the political spectrum.
Mr Whitlam led the country through a period of massive social change from 1972 to 1975 before his ousting by governor-general Sir John Kerr, in the infamous dismissal episode.
Despite being in power for only three turbulent years, Mr Whitlam launched sweeping reforms of the nation's economic and cultural affairs, cementing his place as one of Australia's most revered leaders.
He stopped conscription, introduced free university education, recognised communist China, pulled troops from Vietnam, abolished the death penalty for federal crimes and reduced the voting age to 18.
"Our father, Gough Whitlam, has died this morning at the age of 98," Mr Whitlam's family said in a statement on Tuesday.
"A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians.
"There will be a private cremation and a public memorial service."
Condolences have flowed in for the former Labor leader, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying he inspired a legion of young people to become involved in public life.
"Gough Whitlam was a giant of his time. He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life," Mr Abbott said.
Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten said Mr Whitlam redefined Australia, and in doing so helped improve the lives of many people.
"Today, the party that I lead - the Labor Party - has lost a giant. And I think it is fair to say, regardless of one's politics, the nation has lost a legend.
"He was sacked, unprecedented in Australian history. But of all leaders, therefore, none had arguably more cause to carry an anvil of hatred. But he did not.
"In defending tolerance and defending democracy, Mr Whitlam defined his character and his values and our nation's."
Following the news of Mr Whitlam's death, Federal Parliament was suspended for the day as a mark of respect.
MPs instead devoted the sitting day to paying tribute to the former prime minister.
Mr Whitlams close friend and veteran Labor MP John Faulkner said his role was to change the country.
"To liberate the horizons and uplift the talents of the Australian people."
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke said today was a time to remember the "great life" of Mr Whitlam.
"This is not a time for sadness," he said at a press conference in Sydney.
"Gough was ready to go, and his family was ready for him to go. Rather, it's a remembrance of a great life.
"The simple truth is that Australia is a better country because of the life and work of Gough Whitlam."
Mr Hawke also remembered Mr Whitlam's "biting wit" and humour.
He said he learnt from Mr Whitlam the importance of building consensus within Labor and of thinking beyond Australia to the region, particularly to China, but that Mr Whitlam's "weakness" was a lack of interest in the economy.
Mr Hawke revealed that he warned Mr Whitlam that his government would "live or die on your economic performance".
He said he offered to arrange weekly "sessions" with a leading economist for Mr Whitlam but the offer was never taken up.
Gough Whitlam, Giant of Australian Politics, Dies at 98
Whitlam Was First Western Leader to Recognize Communist China; Led Country Through Rapid Transformation
Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a fierce proponent of rights for indigenous Australians and the first Western leader to recognize communist China, died Tuesday aged 98.
Mr. Whitlam led the country for three turbulent years from 1972 to 1975—a period during which he brought Australian troops home from the Vietnam War, abolished university education fees, and triggered the nation’s biggest constitutional crisis.
While many of Mr. Whitlam’s social-welfare reforms endure, his period in office was overshadowed by the 1975 dismissal of his center-left Labor government by the representative in Australia of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Governor-General John Kerr —who appointed conservative leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister following a political impasse over budget spending.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Mr. Whitlam a “giant of his time,” and ordered flags to be lowered across the nation as a mark of respect. The leader of the Labor opposition, Bill Shorten, said the former prime minister had molded Australia’s identity more profoundly than any other political leader before or since.
“He changed the lives of a generation and generations to come,” Mr. Shorten said, adding: “He reimagined Australia, our home, as a prosperous, modern and multicultural nation where opportunity belonged to everyone.”
Noted for his masterful political oratory and acerbic wit, Mr. Whitlam delivered his most famous speech standing on the steps of Australia’s former Parliament building after his government was dismissed. Taking the microphone from an official who had concluded his announcement of the dissolution with the traditional salutation, “God save the Queen,” Mr. Whitlam declared: “Well, may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the governor-general.”
The politician could also be blunt to the point of rudeness, once telling an opponent during a right-to-life debate: “Let me make quite clear that I am for abortion, and in your case sir, we should make it retrospective.”
Mr. Whitlam swept aside more than two decades of conservative postwar rule with his 1972 victory—promising reforms designed to end a period of political lethargy in Australia and social unrest triggered by U.S. and Australian involvement in the unpopular Vietnam War, while introducing welfare policies closer to those in Europe than the U.S.
Mr. Whitlam’s success in that election ushered in a period of dramatic political change, including universal health care, reforms giving women higher pay, abolition of the death penalty, an end to compulsory military service, and a tilting of foreign policy to be more Asia-focused. His “crash through or crash” approach to his reformist agenda won him bitter opponents as well as the adoration of his supporters.
Mr. Whitlam started negotiations with various indigenous communities that led, in some cases, to the handing back of rights to traditional land. In 1975, he traveled to the Outback and poured sand through the hands of a local Gurindji leader in a symbol of ownership that marked a turning point for the indigenous-land-rights movement. Aboriginal flags were lowered in the central Australian city of Alice Springs on Tuesday as a sign of respect for Mr. Whitlam’s pivotal place in indigenous rights.
“He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life,” Mr. Abbott, who heads Australia’s center-right government, said in a statement on Tuesday. “He established diplomatic relations with China. China is our largest trading partner. That is an enduring legacy.”
In later years, the memories of political tumult surrounding Mr. Whitlam’s government—including conspiracy theories of Central Intelligence Agency involvement in his dismissal—faded and he emerged as an imperious but immensely popular public figure, viewed affectionately on both the left and right of politics.
He will be remembered, among other qualities, for his sharp intellect, dry humor and booming “comrade” greeting both to colleagues and former political opponents. In 2000, Mr. Whitlam was named a living “national treasure” by Australia’s National Trust. Asked on his 80th birthday how he’d greet his maker, Mr. Whitlam quipped: “I do admit I seem eternal. You can be sure of one thing, I shall treat him as an equal.”
Anthony Albanese, a senior Labor lawmaker, said on Tuesday that when Mr. Whitlam came to power as a champion of equal opportunity in Australia’s sprawling suburbs, much of the country’s largest city, Sydney, didn’t have working sewerage systems.
“These basic necessities, support for transport, jobs in our outer suburbs, is what Gough Whitlam drove through,” he said on Australian television. “There is a whole generation of Australians such as myself who are the first in our family to go to university.”
Mr. Whitlam’s four children released a statement praising their father’s legacy. “A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians,” they said.